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Honeybees position statement

While the Trust recognises the numerous positive benefits of managed honeybees and beekeeping, there are concerns that, under certain circumstances, managed honeybees can have detrimental impacts on wild pollinator species, including bumblebees, through disease transmission and competition for resources.

A close-up of a honeybee inspecting the hive cells.

The core aim of the Trust is to aid the conservation of bumblebees. Further evidence is required in order to better understand these concerns (above), but in light of the current evidence the position of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust is to adopt the precautionary principle and recommend the following.

Plantings – Planting for pollinators, especially in the vicinity of honeybee hives, should consist of a range of flowers of different flower structures. Planting both long- and short-corolla species will provide food for a range of pollinator species and minimise the risk of any single species out-competing others.

Hive placement – A precautionary approach should be taken to positioning hives in areas where rare wild bees are present. Where possible hives should not be placed to take advantage of floral resources created and/or managed specifically for wild pollinators, such as nature reserves.

Pathogens – Honeybee health care among beekeepers should be well-established and ‘healthy bee’ guidelines such as those laid down by the National Bee Unit should be followed.

Research – Further research into the impacts of managed honeybees on wild bees and the best ways to identify and mitigate detrimental impacts.

Awareness – Continued efforts to raise awareness that keeping honeybees is not the same as conservation of wild pollinators, and may in some circumstances be detrimental to wild pollinator species such as bumblebees.

There are more than 270 species of wild British bees, although several of these are now thought to be extinct. This includes 24 extant bumblebee species and around 250 species of solitary bee. There is just one species of honeybee in Britain and Europe (the Western or European Honeybee Apis mellifera), although this species has numerous subspecies and colour forms which are often given different common names.

The honeybee is important for pollination and production of wax and honey. Honeybees are kept for both purposes in dedicated hives by commercial and hobbyist beekeepers, and virtually all honeybees in agricultural landscapes originate from these hives. As a species, the honeybee is not an endangered species: globally, managed stocks have increased by 45% since the 1960s[1],[2]. In the UK, the National Bee Unit (NBU) BeeBase database listed 29,000 beekeepers managing 126,000 hives in 2013, up from 15,000 and 80,000 in 2008[3]. The NBU’s newer Hive Count methodology suggested 223,187 hives in 2016-17 and 247,461 in 2017-18[4]. Each hive contains around 40,000 individual honeybees, though this fluctuates across the year and varies between individual hives[5].

Worldwide, there is increasing concern that declines in wild pollinators may be worsened by high densities of honeybees. This is most clear-cut in areas where the honeybee is not a native species, but decreased densities of wild pollinators around apiaries have also been found in Europe in both cropped and natural areas. Some countries have already begun attempting to restrict beekeeping because of the potential effects on wild pollinators. Managed honeybees are known to affect wild pollinators in two main ways: competition for floral resources, and the spread of diseases.

Competition

Honeybees are very efficient super-generalist foragers with a preference for highly-rewarding flowering areas and will compete strongly with wild pollinator species for pollen and nectar from a wide range of flowers. Pollen availability is thought to be the main limiting factor for wild bee populations: several studies have found that available pollen can be almost completely removed each day by wild pollinators. Honeybee colonies have been found to collect between 10.5 and 46.75kg of pollen annually, which means that each honeybee colony will reduce the amount of food available for wild pollinators.

It is possible to test for symptoms of competition between honeybees and wild bees, and it has been found that some wild bee species were scarcer, smaller, less reproductively successful, and fed on different flower species when co-occurring with greater numbers of honeybees. Wild bees have been found to forage more from less-abundant and less-rewarding flower species when honeybees have been present; and when honeybee hives have been removed from areas, wild bee abundances have increased.

Disease transmission

Several diseases affecting honeybees can be found in bumblebees. The seriousness to bumblebees of most of these diseases is not yet precisely known, but bumblebees infected with Deformed Wing Virus (DWV) are known to develop deformed wings and suffer higher mortality. Bumblebees have also been found carrying the fungal pathogen Nosema ceranae, a new disease of honeybees, and infectious diseases have been implicated in bumblebee declines.

Disease transfer takes place mostly through the shedding of disease particles onto shared flowers. DWV is the best-studied of these diseases, and the human-caused movement of managed honeybees has been found to be the source of DWV outbreaks in bumblebees. As many other diseases are likely to be spread in a similar fashion, it is reasonable to assume that having managed bees in close proximity to vulnerable populations of wild bees will present a high risk of infecting these wild bees with new diseases.

[1] Aizen, M.A. & Harder, L.D. (2009). The global stock of domesticated honey bees is growing slower than agricultural demand for pollination. Curr. Biol. 19, 915–918

[2] Geldmann, J., & González-Varo, J. P. (2018). Conserving honey bees does not help wildlife. Science, 359(6374), 392–393. doi:10.1126/science.aar2269

[3] Defra, Supporting document to the National Pollinator Strategy: for bees and other pollinators in England, November 2014 

[4] National Bee Unit, Defra (2018). The Hive Count: Your response and future plans for the project. BBKA News, July 2018, p. 241

[5] BBKA bee facts